Mancala World
First Description: (?), 1896
Cycles: Two
Ranks: Four
Sowing: Multiple laps
Region: Malawi

Bawo (from Swahili "bao": board) is a variant of Bao la Kiswahili played by the Yao in Malawi as a tournament sport.

The oldest Bawo board was made in 1896 in Malawi and is kept today in the British Museum in London.

Regular championships are held at district, regional and national levels in numerous places in Malawi such as Blantyre, Chirimba, and Mzuzu City. Leading players are Philmon Kossa, Isaac Masauli, Bright Mkanda, Isaac Selemani, and Gilos Chitsulo. The winner of the national Bawo League, which sponsored by Lorex Kapanga receives 35 000K (about 230 US Dollars) and a trophy, which is a lot in a country with a per capita income of 69.5 US Dollars per month (in 2009). According to Paul Smith there had already been a national Bawo league sponsored by South African Airways in the 1990s. Tournaments outside of Africa were held 2002-2004 at the Mindsports Olympiad (MSO) in Cambridge (England) and in 2010 at the University of Alberta in Edmonton (Canada).


The Bawo rules are similar to Bao la Kiswahili except for a few differences.

General differences

  • According to Mark Chikoko (Game Cabinet), there are initially eight seeds in each nyumba called kuu in Malawi (not six as in Zanzibar) and only 20 seeds are kept in reserve, while Tommy Chibaka ( starts the kuu with 10 seeds and plays with 18 seeds in reserve. The kuu must have at least as many seeds as it had initially (i.e. 8 or 10) to be considered a functioning kuu. Sanderson observed in 1913 that the kuu had six seeds and it seems that the number of reserve seeds has diminished in Bawo over the years to shorten the nemo stage of the game.

Initial Position (Mark Chikoko)

  • If a player feels that a takata move isn't going to end naturally, he may announce that it might be a never-ending move and stop after the current lap.
  • It is permitted to sow the contents of the kichwa to the back row, even if it is the only occupied hole of the front row, but it would result in immediate defeat.
  • A hole containing 16 seeds or more can never capture.

Differences related to the first stage of the game

  • Before the first stage begins, there is a special opening gambit played by each player in their first turn: The first player empties his holes containing two seeds, adds another seed to them from his reserve (called nemo in Bawo), and then places these five as desired in any of the 16 holes on his side without sowing them. The second player does the same to get five seeds for the gambit, but also adds to them all the opponent's seeds, which are opposite to his occupied holes in the opponent's front row and are thus captured.
  • Nemo may only be added to singletons in a takata (non-capturing) move, if all holes of the front row outside the kuu contain at most a single seed.
  • If the only occupied hole in the front row is the kuu, the kuu has exactly eight seeds (Tommy Chibaka: nine) and nothing can be captured, a seed is put into the kuu, then its contents (i.e. all nine seeds -- Tommy Chibaka: eleven) are lifted and sown in either direction.
  • The contents of the opponent's kuu can only be captured by placing a nemo in the opposite hole, if the own kuu is not threatened (i.e. the hole opposite to the own kuu must be empty).

Differences related to the second stage of the game

  • If there is still a (functional) kuu, it must be moved on the player's first non-capturing move.
  • The contents of a takasiaed hole must be captured even if other holes have become also menaced.

Bawo Poem

A Game of Bawo

Take your cue from a game of Bawo
where sides at the edge of doom
are best conceded as losses
and easy withdrawal
leads to stunning victories

Springs hot and cold, dry up;
flowers bloom and fade
and trees at times shed their leaves and their barks
neither recall the bloom
nor visit springs that once gushed waters -
memories are sweetest unruffled by daylight and
forced ceremonies stink worst than rudeness

This meticulous insouciance
these decoys made in heaven
follow a standard design
with familiar specifications

Take you cue from a game of Bawo;
neither recall the bloom of flowers
nor the showers of spring.

Felix Mnthali (1933-)

External Links


Blind Man Surprises Fans At Bawo Tourney. In: The Nation January 15, 2013.
Monkey Bay Date Namiasi in Bawo Friendly. In: The Nation June 11, 2010.
Chimombo, Z. C.
Bawo: Malawi's National Game. September 23, 2009.
Chimombo, Z. C.
The Oldest Game in the World. In: New African 2009; 44 (6): 84-86.
Kawala, A.
Malawian Student Develops Bawo Game Software. In: The Maravi Post December 31, 2010.
Kawina, B.
Malaina Tops Yoneco Bawo League. In: The Nation December 21, 2010.
Kawina, B.
Yoneco Bawo League Throw off. In: The Nation November 25, 2010.
Kayira, K.
James: A Bawo Wizard. In: Together: A Youth Magazine 2006 (39).
Mapanje, J.
Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing. Heinemann International, London (UK) 2002.
Mmeya, M.
Kapanga Bawo Trophy Eludes Chirimba Again. In: The Nation March 29, 2011.
Mmeya, M.
Archrivals Meet in Kapanga Bawo Trophy. In: The Nation March 25, 2011.
Mmeya, M.
Ndirande Win BT Bawo Trophy. In: The Nation December 28, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
BT Bawo Finals Set for Sunday. In: The Nation December 24, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Bawo Player: M'madi Gado. In: The Nation November 16, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Chinyangala ithetsa mankhalu Namiasi pa bawo. In: The Nation November 11, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Chinyangala Win Mangochi Bawo League. In: The Nation November 10, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Mangochi Bawo League Ends in Style Sunday. In: The Nation November 6, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Mangochi Bawo League Finals Sunday. In: The Nation November 4, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Bawo League in Quarters. In: The Nation October 29, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
MH Bawo League Gets Transport Boost. In: The Nation October 7, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Mbayani Start Badly in Kapanga Bawo Trophy. In: The Nation September 14, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Fourth Club Joins Blantyre Bawo League. In: The Nation August 31, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Blantyre Loses Bawo Player Extraordinaire. In: The Nation August 10, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Namiasi Humble Monkey Bay. In: The Nation June 30, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Mangochi Bawo Trophy Set to Start. In: The Nation June 23, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Monkey Bay Conquer Namiasi in Style. In: The Nation June 16, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
BT and Mangochi in Bawo Highlights. In: The Nation June 8, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Monkey Bay Join Mangochi Bawo Contest. In: The Nation June 4, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Namiasi sets MH Bawo Pace. In: The Nation June 2, 2010.
Mmeya, M.
Bawo Enthusiasts End Year at Shrine. In: The Nation December 4, 2009.
Mwale, S. K.
Bao. In: The Society of Malawi Journal 1996; 49 (1): 56-70.
Sanderson, M. G.
Bau (Swahili). In: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Insitute 1913; 43: 726-736.
Singini, G.
Kasambara Launches Bawo Trophy in Mzuzu. In: The Nation March 16, 2009: 43.


© Ralf Gering
Under the CC by-sa 2.5 license.